Governance in South and Southeast Asia

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Learning objective

Explain how and why various states and Southeast Asia states developed and maintained power over time.

Historical Development 1

India’s government transitioned from Hindu governance to Islamic governance in the North and remained under Hindu governance in the South. 

Historical Development 2

Prior to the 15th century, Southeast Asia was a mix of Hindu and Buddhist states. 

Historical Development 3

Islamic governance arrived in Southeast Asia in the 15th century.


South Asian Governance Before the 13th Century

From the 6th Century to the Islamic invasion of South Asia in the 13th Century, India was politically fragmented. No sizable centralized government ruled over the whole of the Indian subcontinent. Hindu princes governed most states, while Buddhist kingdoms were most common on the island of Sri Lanka.

Hindu Governance in North India

North India was politically decentralized and divided among several Hindu kingdoms known as the Rajput states. Between c. 1000 and c. 1250, several Rajput territories, ruled by princes of the Rajput caste, expanded, competed for dominance within the region. The region lacked one significant dominant power.

Hindu Governance in South India

The Hindu Chola kingdom dominated South India between the 9th and 12th centuries. Chola merchants and ships traveled throughout the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, trading goods along the Indian Ocean trade routes at the height of Chola power. Their merchants traveled as far as China, 3000 miles to the east. The Chola’s political and economic influence spread Hindu and Buddhist culture and governing systems in Southeast Asia.

The Arrival of Islam in South Asia in the 13th Century

Beginning in 1206, Turkish Mamluk Muslims invaded North India and established the Delhi Sultanate. For the next 600 years, Islam expanded across India–first across the north and later across the south. The Rajput Hindu kingdoms that previously ruled North India were conquered and replaced with the Delhi Sultanate’s Islamic government. During the Islamic invasion, Islamic armies plundered and stole many Buddhist and Hindu holy sites’ wealth. They also deconstructed the architectural components of these sites and later used them to build new Islamic structures.

Islamic Political Dominance Across North India

The Islamic Delhi Sultanate established its capital in Delhi in North India. While the Sultanate’s borders expanded to include portions of South India, before the 15th Century, Islamic dominance remained in North India. 

  • The majority Hindu population of North India was now under minority Muslim rule. 
  • Tolerance toward Hindus by their new Islamic rulers differed across time, with some periods being more tolerant than others. Islamic rulers labeled their Hindu subjects as dhimmis (protected people). 
  • However, some rulers were less tolerant and required Hindus to pay the non-Muslim jizya tax. 

Hindu Rule Continues in South India

Hindu kings largely remained in power in South India. The Hindu state of Vijayanagar rose to power in the 14th century following the weakening of the Chola dynasty. Two Hindu brothers who had converted to Islam while living in the Delhi Sultanate started Vijayanagar. Once in South India, these brothers converted back to Hinduism. Vijayanagar managed to stop Islamic expansion across South India until its collapse in the 17th century.

Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic Governance In Southeast Asia

Governments in Southeast Asia before the 15th century were a mix of both Hindu and Buddhist rule. Some of the influential Hindu and Buddhist states included: 

Islamic Governance Arrives in Southeast Asia

Islamic governance in the region was brief. By the early 15th century, leaders around the Sumatra area of the Indonesian islands and the Malay peninsula began to convert to Islam. The first Islamic power in the region was the Sultanate of Malacca. However, by the early 16th century, the Malay Sultanate fell to the power of the Portuguese, who incorporated the area into the Portuguese trading empire in Asia. While the Malay peninsula Indonesian islands remained under European control for nearly 500 years, Islam continued to spread across the region.

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